One of the most prevalent mental illnesses in the United States is depression. Severe depression can affect quality of life and ability to function during the day. Treatment with medication and therapy helps many. However, nutrition is often disregarded as a treatment. Yet, improving how one eats may help manage symptoms of depression.
· There are 16 million Americans suffering from major depressive disorder.
· Half of those with depression are also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.
· Some medical conditions can trigger depression, including chronic pain, hypothyroidism, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
· Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a major depressive disorder that happens in the winter due to the shorter days and less sunlight.
· About 35% of adults with major depression don’t receive treatment.
Research on Eating Habits and Depression
Eating is important in the brain development of infants and children. Also, current research on cognitive function and aging suggests that healthy eating (specifically the MIND eating plan) may reduce risk of Alzheimer disease. Therefore, it is logical to think that the foods you eat can also impact your mood.
A 2017 meta-analysis looked at eating patterns and depression in 21 studies with 117,229 participants. Western eating patterns were associated with increased depression. Here are specific foods that contributed to depression in the studies when they were eaten regularly:
· Red and/or processed meat
· Refined grains
· High-fat dairy products
· High fat gravy
Results of this study also showed that those who ate less fruits and vegetables were more likely to experience depression.
Another project looked at the eating patterns of nearly 15,000 university graduates. Ultra-processed foods (frozen and ready to eat meals and snacks) were associated with depression, especially in those who were less active. Depression risk was highest in people who ate the most ultra-processed foods.
It’s unknown at this time why Western eating patterns increase the risk of depression. Perhaps, they lack specific nutrients and antioxidants, or they may promote inflammation in the brain area that controls emotions.
Healthier eating patterns seem to be protective against depression:
· A study on older adults found those who followed the Mediterranean eating plan had reduced risk of depression.
· Regularly eating fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and tea was associated with fewer depressive symptoms.
· In a study on middle-aged to older adults, vegetarian eating was associated with 43% lower risk of depression. (Not all studies on vegetarian eating show a reduction in depression.)
The exact ways that eating affects depression are unknown. Certain nutrients may affect brain health and neurotransmitter regulation. Various healthy eating components might work together to reduce depression.
The Bottom Line
· How a person eats may not completely cure depression for everyone, but it can improve the effectiveness of medication and behavioral health.
· Find ways to eat less ultra-processed foods and adopt a whole-foods way of eating.
· Small changes add up and even something simple like adding vegetables each day may help.